A Golden Opportunity
Family of Late UMD Professor Auctions Nobel Medal to Fight Hate
The family of a late Nobel Prize laureate and professor at the University of Maryland has auctioned his 18-karat gold award medal in order to continue his commitment to empathy.
Thomas Schelling’s medal went on the block May 31 at a Los Angeles auction house, fetching $187,000. His family donated the proceeds to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit that fights hate and bigotry and advocates for civil rights through litigation.
Schelling, a distinguished university professor of economics and public policy, was a pioneer in game theory, yet his widow, Alice Schelling, says the most influential book he ever read was one for children, the 1927 Newbery Medal winner “Smoky the Cowhorse” by Will James.
“He’d say it was the first time he understood empathy for other human beings,” says Alice Schelling. “I connect that with his sense of empathy for the people who are helped by the Southern Poverty Law Center.”
Drawn to economics after seeing the impact of the Great Depression during his youth, Schelling worked in the Truman administration and helped execute the Marshall Plan in Europe. He studied nuclear strategy and spent more than 30 years at Harvard University, where he had earned his doctorate.
Schelling came to Maryland in 1990, and with Robert J. Aumann received the 2005 Nobel Prize in economics “for having enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis.” His research, including several books, influenced nuclear policy and diplomacy around the world. He was also known as a dedicated teacher. Schelling died in 2016 at age 95 and was survived by his wife and four sons.
Schelling’s sense of empathy extended to those affected by climate change, says Maureen Cropper, chair of Maryland’s Department of Economics. In a speech addressing the economics of climate change when he was elected president of the American Economic Association, fairness was a main concern, she remembers.
“He was very concerned with equity aspects of reducing greenhouse gas emissions as well as efficiency aspects,” Cropper says. Unlike some economists, who are only “concerned about doing things as cheaply as possible,” she says, Schelling believed that wealthier countries should invest in poorer ones to help them develop cleaner sources of energy.
“The idea that the proceeds from the sale of his medal would go to support social causes is totally consistent with his contributions to economics,” she says.